Accidental Billionaire: an Ayi Update

It is fortunate that last week I wrote about Ayi, because if you read that post you have the background to fully appreciate the following story. If you haven’t read the last post, please redirect yourself to the post entitled “On Ayi” before continuing to read this entry. I hope that you will find this story as funny as I did.

Just a quick refresher: Ayi is the woman who comes to our house twice a week to clean and cook. She is a migrant worker from Henan who works every day of the week cleaning and cooking for various families and students. She has received little if any formal education. We love her and respect the work she does for us, and this story is not intended to poke fun at her but rather to laugh and learn from a small yet hilarious misunderstanding.

Yesterday at 5pm Ayi came over as she usually does on Sundays before heading to the market to buy ingredients for dinner. Alec and I accompanied her to the market so that we could practice our Chinese and help her decide what we wanted for dinner (pictures of the shopping here). Soon we were back at home, eating a delicious meal that Ayi had prepared for us, and stuffing ourselves until we could eat no more. Ayi cleaned the table as we slowly got up and tried to find something to distract us so we wouldn’t have to return to our homework for the night. Ayi, always eager to talk to us, began telling us about how she had found some coins on the sidewalk, but she didn’t know where they were from or how much they were worth.

Eager to postpone homework, we talked to her, trying to figure out where the currency could have come from (she didn’t have it on her). Jared went to his room and returned with an American quarter, and sure enough Ayi confirmed that this indeed was the coin she had found. Ayi pointed out that it was very strange that there were no numbers anywhere on the coin, and that only if you could read english would you have any idea how much the coin was worth – a pretty fair point, I can’t think of another country that has currency like that. Realizing that she probably hadn’t seen any American currency before, I grabbed a penny, a nickle, and a dime from my bag and gave them to Ayi to investigate (also no numbers on these).

Seeing how curious Ayi was with these coins, Jared asked if she had ever seen an American dollar bill, and pulled out a $1 bill from his wallet and presented it to Ayi. Again, Ayi had never seen an American dollar before, and she asked how many Chinese RMB it was worth. We explained that it was worth 6.3 RMB, a fact that shocked her, and she exclaimed that now she knew why Americans could spend so much money in China. She had never known before that there was a great disparity between the US dollar and the Chinese RMB, something that I was at first shocked by, but then I realized that she had no reason to have any knowledge of the international exchange rate.

Jared then produced at a $20 bill from his wallet and handed it to Ayi. Ayi looked at it, and then exclaimed that this bill must be over 100 RMB. She looked at it closely, and then compared it to the $1 bill, noticing that there were different presidents on each bill, and still wrapping her head around the ridiculous exchange rate.

Seeing her obvious fascination with this foreign money, Jared suddenly remembered that he had more bills, reached into his pocket once again, and handed her this.

It took probably five full seconds for Ayi to process what Jared had just handed her – a fifty billion dollar Zimbabwe dollar bill. Unable to make any sense of any of the words, and never having seen any currency other than RMB before, she clasped the bill tightly, counting the 0’s following the 5. In her eyes you could see the wheels in her head turning as she quickly calculated that this bill in her hand, presumably another American bill, must be worth 320 billion Chinese RMB.

I can only imagine the insane thoughts that must have been going through her head. Only a few minutes before she had just learned that America’s currency was 7x as valuable as China’s, and now she was holding over 1% of China’s total annual GDP. Who did she think we were? Or what did she think life in America must be like? Maybe she thought about making a dash for it, maybe she thought about killing us, I don’t know, but I will say that the look in her eyes was one that I had never seen and will probably never see again. It was a look of absolute and utter astonishment, confusion, and wonder, all focused on the piece of paper with 10 zero’s in her hand.

After a few seconds she asked quietly in Chinese, “This is your country’s money?” To which Jared, immediately realizing the great misunderstanding, tried as best he could to explain that the money was from a failed economy that underwent massive inflation, and as such was completely worthless.

The humor of course lies in the utter absurdity of the amount of money. If it were a $10,000, or even a $100,000 that still would have equaled a serious quantity of RMB. But this was 50 billion dollars. 50 billion! That was the total cost of the war in Iraq in 2003. Like I said, I just can’t even imagine what she must have been thinking.

Obviously this was just a simple misunderstanding, and one that was quickly cleared up. Clearly nothing in any of her experiences would have prepared her to discern a Zimbabwe dollar from an American dollar. Afterwards she was a good sport and had a good laugh with us about it. Still though, the look in her eyes for those couple seconds – worth a billion dollars.

On Ayi

We have an Ayi. Ayi, the Chinese word for aunt, or step-mother, or nursemaid, or really any woman of similar age to one’s parents, is how we address the woman who comes to our apartment twice a week to clean, shop, and cook for us. Ayi is an older woman of undetermined age (she has two sons who are married, but who do not have any kids – if that is any indicator) from Henan who was recommended to us by the last tenants in our apartment. She is a pretty interesting character, and her presence is a big one in my Beijing life, so I’ll try my best to describe her and our relationship with her in this post.

Upon arriving in Beijing, one of the only things in our apartment was a note on the table scribbled in Chinese from Ayi. She left her number for us to call her and promised to clean and cook for us. In all the madness of the first week in Beijing, getting our rent straightened out, buying sheets, and registering for classes, we didn’t get around to calling her for a while. Finally, one evening late in the week I picked up the phone and dialed the number she had left.

What followed was an assault of deeply accented Mandarin Chinese at a piercing volume. My rusty Chinese didn’t help much. When I got off the phone I wasn’t exactly sure what conclusion we had reached, but within 10 minutes she has made her way from wherever she had been before to our apartment and was standing in our common room, being very upset that all of the pots and pans and utensils were missing from our apartment.

[Side note: to this day it is unclear what happened to any of the items that that the previous tenants were using. We spoke to the old tenants and they seemed pretty confused about where they could have gone, the landlady seems to think they somehow went missing, and the Ayi is furious. We are all pretty sure the landlady took them or sold them, as it seems pretty consistent with our previous impression of her.]

Her deep Henan accent was very difficult to understand, and she spoke at an incredible pace, getting frustrated when we asked her to repeat a sentence again. It took the combined Chinese abilities and severe concentration of me and my three room mates to communicate with Ayi, but pretty soon we agreed that she would come on Wednesdays and Sundays to cook and clean for us. She started pacing the apartment, looking through drawers, cupboards, and shelves, all the while shouting angrily about the different items that were missing. We stood around watching her, periodically stupidly nodding our heads and voicing words of agreement. We asked her what she would need us to buy for her to cook us dinner, expecting a list of items that we could buy in the next couple days, but instead she asked us if we were busy, and suggested that we all go together to the supermarket across the street to buy everything that moment.

The three of us, three American college students, were soon following this tiny fierce migrant worker through the aisles of the supermarket, pushing shopping carts full of food and pans and utensils around, trying to talk to her and understand her, as she was shouting at full volume at anyone in the supermarket who might be able to help her find what she was looking for. It was a ridiculous sight. One poor supermarket employee made the mistake of engaging Ayi, and spent the next 30 minutes on a ladder in the pan aisle, showing her dozens of pans of varying quality and price, all the while struggling almost as much as we were to understand Ayi. At one point, the woman asked Ayi why she didn’t just buy the more expensive pan and save the trouble, because we Americans were going to pay for it anyway, to which Ayi vehemently retorted that we could speak Chinese and that she wasn’t going to do that to us. Good to have her on our side.

Eventually we got the pan she wanted, picked up a few more items, bought them, and headed home. Ayi didn’t cook for us that night because it was already getting late, but we paid her for her time and said good night. It had been an absolutely exhausting experience, but one that left us excited for her to come again.

Since then she has been back several times. A regular day goes as follows: She arrives at 4pm, asks us what we want to eat, and then goes to the market to buy the ingredients. We accompanied her once, and it was a really amazing place – everything is incredibly cheap, and there are dozens of different farmers with their harvest from that day. The area is really poor, and it is a side of Beijing I rarely get to see so close. By 5:30 she is in the kitchen cooking, and usually the first dish is out by 6. We’ll eat for an hour or so, then she will do a quick clean of the apartment (the cleaning side of this deal is really mediocre, but it’s still worth it for the food and the stories). She usually leaves around 8 or 9, depending on how much we are able to talk to her that night.

Her cooking is unusually good. Apparently some unknown amount of years ago she used to work at a restaurant, and it really shows. She knows how to make everything we’ve asked her to make so far, and has done a really good job with all of it. She also always makes an unreasonable amount of food, which seams like a very Chinese-mother thing to do. A few nights ago we asked her to make dumplings, so bought all the materials and made them from scratch, hand-making 250 dumplings, an absurd amount for the three of us and our one friend that we invited over. We saved them and ate them over the course of the next couple days, and while they were delicious, I’m pretty sure I won’t eat another dumpling for a couple weeks. We invite her to sit with us and eat, but she insists on eating only after we finish our food. Only then will she grab a plate and eat whatever we haven’t finished (which is usually a lot). All the while she is very chatty and loves talking to us for as long as we will listen, which we are happy to do until we have to go back and do work. Her favorite topic of conversation is discussing the relative prices of vegetables at various markets, often commenting on how much more expensive the garlic at the market near our house is from the market she goes to. It’s a pretty great way to practice Chinese outside of the classroom, especially because her accent is so different from the Chinese we normally hear, and a really fascinating window into the life of a migrant worker.

Nights when Ayi comes over are always exciting but also always very tiring. Communicating with her is difficult, and she loves to talk and ask us lots of questions. By the time she leaves we are usually pretty beat, and we all retreat to our bedrooms and finish our homework as quickly as possible and then go to sleep. At first we were wondering if we should have her over more often, maybe three or even four nights a week, but I think we all decided that twice a week is plenty. Our apartment is cleaned, we eat a home cooked meal, and we get to learn a little bit more about her life. Any more than twice a week and it might be more trouble than it is worth.

One last thing to mention about Ayi is that she really puts into perspective how cushy our living situation is. She will regularly ask how much we paid for different things in our home (remember she loves talking about relative prices), and she is always blown away by how expensive everything we own is. While she has worked for foreign students before, she is always a little quiet when we accompany her to the market and and buy expensive things. For a woman who spends every day haggling over the price of a pound of garlic to try to get it for 2.5RMB instead of 3RMB, the way we spend money for convenience or to buy something silly on the street still clearly makes her uncomfortable. Just think, we pay her about 20RMB an hour (apparently a pretty general salary for an Ayi), so she will earn 80-100RMB in an evening of work, and she watches as we spend 150 RMB on tiny tea kettle that she could get second hand on the street for 5RMB. It really makes you think every time you spend your money.

So that’s Ayi. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about her as the year goes on. In the meantime, you can check out Flickr to see some photos of us shopping with her and her cooking.

-Matt

On Housing

So I’ve been in China a little over a week now, and my living situation is finally starting to shape up.  I am renting an apartment a few minutes walk from Tsinghua University in a big apartment complex called huaqingjiayuan near Wudaokou, a very busy area around a major subway station.  Students doing IUP have three housing options – rent an apartment, live in the Tsinghua dorms, or live with a Chinese host family.  I made the choice a long time ago to rent an apartment with two Yalies who are also attending IUP, and it’s worked out really great so far.  Renting an apartment gives me the full freedom to come and go as I please (not always the case with the other two options) and fully imerges me in real Chinese life (although perhaps in a different way than living with a host family).  The whole process of organizing our renting situation was in itself an incredible experience, so I thought I’d talk about that in this post, both to give my parents an idea of what I’ve been up to and to share with potential IUP students what goes into renting an apartment in Beijing.

I’ll start by saying that this process started over 4 months ago.  I got in touch with a friend who was doing IUP at the time to get some details about what housing was like, and she suggested that I just continue her lease after she left Beijing.  I highly recommend doing something like this for two reasons.  The first is that it is just practical.  IUP tells you that you don’t need to know where you are going to live when you get to Beijing and that finding an apartment is easy, but the truth is that it isn’t that easy and you’ll have to be living out of a hotel room for your first few days (if not weeks) in China.  There are many IUP students who have been spending their first few days in Beijing running around talking to housing agents and trying to navigate the real estate situation in China in Chinese.  This is incredibly stressful and totally unnecessary.  The second big reason to try to find your house before you get to Beijing is that it’s cheaper – a lot cheaper.  Because my friend put me in touch with the landlord and I spoke to her directly, the landlord was able to avoid paying for an agent to show the house.  This saved her a ton of money, which in turn saved me a ton a money, since it is usually the renter who ends up paying for the agent fees.  Also, when you have your suitcases in hand and classes start in a few days, you really don’t have many chips to bargain with.  Students who are getting their apartments now are getting worse apartments with agent fees on top of much higher monthly rates.  Before I touched down in Beijing I knew exactly how much I’d be paying in rent (all the bartering happened online), and even more importantly, I had the word of my friend that there were no serious problems with the place.

Finding an apartment is only the tip of the iceberg of renting an apartment in Beijing – it is just the beginning of an absurd process.  The first thing that is fundamentally different from the same process in America is that all transactions are in cash.  That means that when I first arrived at my apartment and my roommates and I had to pay the landlady our deposit and the first 3 months of rent (equivalent to 4 months rent – standard practice in China), we had to come up with over 30,000 RMB in cash.  This is made extremely complicated by the fact that almost all Chinese banks have a limit on how much money they will allow you to withdraw in a 24 hour period if you only have an American bank account (usually around 4,000 RMB).  In other words, the only way to make the payment is to A) start hoarding cash a few days in advance, withdrawing the maximum amount for three days or B) bring thousands of dollars in American cash with you that you can exchange for RMB.  Neither is a very attractive option.  As it was, we went with option A, and ended up having to give the landlady our rent in a series of consecutive payments.  This is especially ridiculous because the largest bill in China is 100 RMB, meaning that every time you pay your landlord you are just handing over wads of cash and it feels like a drug deal.  I assume we will get in the habit of hoarding wads of cash a few days before the rent is due.

Another pretty ridiculous episode happened a few days ago when we had to register with the Chinese police.  Basically in order to get a student card at Tsinghua University we must be registered with the Chinese police (something that to the best I can tell most people just do not do unless they have to), and in order to be registered with the Chinese police we have to go to the police station with our landlord.  At the police station, the landlord is supposed to declare that we are staying in her house, she is supposed to pay a tax on her revenue from the rent, and we are supposed to give the police a copy of our contract.  Our teachers specifically told us that it is the landlord’s responsibility to pay the tax on her revenue, but from the start it was clear that this was not how things were going to be.  She claimed that said tax was not included in our rent, and that we would therefore have to pay it.  Not being well versed in Chinese tax laws and our Chinese being a bit rusty, there was little we could do to prevent this.  We didn’t feel so bad because we are yet to speak to another IUP student who wasn’t screwed over in the same way.  But things got even more sketchy from there.  Perhaps as a favor to us, or maybe to further avoid taxes, the landlord completely lied on the copy of the contract that she gave the police.  She said we were going to be staying in Beijing for 3 months (not 9), and listed the rent at about half of what it actually was.  The good news is that the tax we were forced to pay was therefore much lower, but I can’t help feeling that there is an off chance that her creative accounting may have some serious repercussions for us or her.  Regardless, when we went to the police station together she told us to pretend that we couldn’t speak any Chinese so that she could handle the police, and they didn’t ask any questions.  We paid our cheaper tax.  Overall I was pretty amused that our landlord had no problem having us pay her tax, but she was concerned enough that she lied on the police form to minimize the amount we had to pay.  In a lot of ways this story gives you a great idea of the kind of person that our landlady is – she is very nice and smiles a lot, but the whole while you just know that she’s totally ripping you off.

In addition to all of this, when I got to the apartment there was nothing there besides the necessities.  There were no bedsheets or pillows (I spent my first night sleeping on a bare mattress using a sweater as a pillow), no pots or pans or utensils(they had apparently all been stolen – or removed by the landlord who pretended not to know anything about it), no glasses, no internet, nothing.  My first full day in China was spent shopping for these items.  Also there is a washing machine in the bathroom – I thought that was weird.

It is important to realize that all of the negotiating and contract signing and telephone calls and emails were in Chinese.  This was an immediate crash course in real estate / contract vocabulary, and really got my Chinese language wheels turning again, after a long Mandarin-less summer.  The process was incredibly stressful and tiring (as I imagine it would be even if everyone was speaking English) and it was a great learning experience.  I have found that the whole first week of being in China has been similar to this housing episode – I have been regularly thrust into really important situations that I have never had to deal with in Chinese before, and it is up to me to sink or swim.  There is no help from IUP.  I am really on my own (with my roommates).

As I am writing this, everything has been straightened out with the landlord and I am no longer worried about our living arrangements.  There is a giant leak in our ceiling in the common room (pictures @ flickr), but besides that everyone is all settled in.  With living arrangements behind me, now I can finally start thinking about classes, which start tomorrow at 8am.

-Matt

Announcing the Weekly Wonton!

Hello world,

I am assuming that since you have navigated to this blog you have a good understanding of who I am and what I am doing, so there is no need to spend paragraphs introducing myself.  The short of it is that I just graduated from Yale and I am now spending nine months in China studying Chinese in the IUP program hosted by Berkelee College at Tsinghua University in Beijing.  You probably already know that I have been to China twice before in intensive language programs, but this time promises to be a completely different story.  For starters, the duration of this trip will be twice as long as both of my stays in China combined.  Furthermore, this time around I will be truly living the Beijing life – renting an apartment, cooking food (maybe), experiencing for the first time Chinese autumn, winter and spring, and much more.

Another big difference is that I am committed to doing a decent job of documenting my adventures here.  To the many fans who read my blog two summers ago describing my first experiences in Beijing, you may remember that the Daily Dumpling often fell short of its promise.  In honesty, I don’t think that the blog ever once lived up to its name.  Consequently, I became disheartened, and with each missed post was less motivated to salvage the blog.  Which is why this year I am proudly introducing the Weekly Wonton, a blog with more modest aspirations, that may prove to be a far more fulfilling blogging experience for both the writer and reader.  Throughout the course of my nine month adventures, there may be weeks during which I blog several times, and weeks of no blogging at all, but it is my goal to average at least one blog post a week.

On top of this I am doing something exciting and new!  Just before boarding my plane to Beijing, I purchased a digital camera, which I have been carrying with me at all times since.  I’ve been taking a few pictures every day (and plan to continue to do so) and I will be uploading these pictures daily (I hope) to my flickr photo stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/weeklywonton/.  I’m going to try to be consistent about this so there should at least some new content every day or so.  For those of you who just can’t get enough of my blog, the weekly wonton flickr photo stream is a great place to go for bonus multimedia updates.

So that’s the promise of the weekly wonton: weekly blog posts and daily (ish) photo uploads.  I hope you enjoy.  Leave comments on my stuff so I know you care.

-Matt

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